New Alberta Party leader touts ideology-free option

By Catherine Griwkowsky September 2, 2021

With new leader Barry Morishita in place, the Alberta Party is aiming to get back into the legislature with official party status in 2023.

Morishita, who was acclaimed as leader on Tuesday, ended his tenure as president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) and Brooks mayor to make the leap to provincial politics, as he looks to offer voters a non-“ideological” option.

Just don’t call him a centrist.

“Centrist is a terrible kind of political term, because it says, ‘well, what are you then?’” Morishita said in an interview with AB Today.

Instead, because the party is not hitched to any one ideology, he said it will be free to make better decisions for a broad range of people.

The party will be releasing clear policy positions in the months ahead to show it stands for something rather than being just “not the UCP or the NDP.”

Those policy commitments and consultation with communities will ramp up in the fall after the federal and municipal elections. The party will hold its first AGM with Morishita at the helm in November.

Lori Williams, political scientist at Mount Royal University, told AB Today that while the Alberta Party has had high profile leaders before, what makes Morishita different is his provincewide connections built through his time at AUMA.

The big test will be in the party’s fundraising numbers.

Morishita has yet to discuss election strategy, but said he aims to run a full slate of candidates in 2023. He has yet to decide which riding he will run in, but said a future by-election may present an opportunity.

In the 2019 election, the Alberta Party was shut out of the legislature, as it failed to retain its three seats. Shortly after, leader Stephen Mandel, formerly a PC health minister, stepped down. Former PC MLA Jacquie Fenske served as interim leader until this week.

Morishita’s transition team includes former PC cabinet minister and one-time PC leadership candidate Doug Griffiths, as well as former AUMA president Lisa Holmes.

Alberta Party president Conrad Guay said he is thrilled with Morishita’s leadership and team, adding the party is ready to end the partisan bickering in the legislature.

The leadership role isn’t Morishita’s first foray into provincial politics. Two decades ago, he joined the Alberta Liberal Party under Laurence Decore and ran as a candidate when Grant Mitchell was leader.

Room in the middle
Williams said the Alberta Party could find success by attracting Alberta voters in the centre who feel the Liberal brand may be too toxic, despite its past successes (The 2019 election saw the Liberals also shut out of the legislature for the first time since 1982; John Roggeveen has served as interim leader since David Khan’s resignation in November 2020).

The same is true for the NDP for those averse to socialism, despite the Alberta NDP’s relatively centrist position on energy, for instance, compared to its federal counterparts, she said. For some former PC voters, the NDP may also be a step too far left.

A challenge is many voters are looking to vote “against” one party, rather than for something, Williams said. For example, some conservative voters may hold their nose and vote UCP if it means keeping the NDP out of power.

Despite a threat of a fracture from right-wing parties, none of the conservative alternatives have managed to take away fundraising dollars from the UCP, Williams noted.

There are also conservatives who may still back the UCP, she said, but are waiting to see if a leadership review means Jason Kenney can be ousted first.

In a 23-tweet rant, former Wildrose leader and UCP leadership candidate Brian Jean said either the UCP needs to change or an Alberta equivalent to the Saskatchewan Party must emerge to give centrists a proper political home. He said the UCP is too far to the right, while the NDP is too far left and the province lurches between those two.

Morishita said he was motivated to join the Alberta Party role for his kids’ future. The 55-year-old, now a grandfather of two, said his daughters aren’t enthusiastic about the prospect of staying in Alberta for the rest of their lives.

“We are blessed with an incredible amount of resources — both renewable and non-renewable, an incredible amount of entrepreneurship and independence and drive,” Morishita said. “And I’ve seen them chipped away. I think the confidence in the province and its government has deteriorated over the last two terms of government.”